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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Once the Last Word on Cool, Levi's Snubbed by U.S. Youth

SAN FRANCISCO -- Time was when wearing a pair of Levi's jeans made an American kid feel cool and drove a parent crazy.


These days, it's the parents who are wearing the red-tagged faded blues and the kids who proclaim them ...


"Preppy," said Mario Flores, 18, of San Francisco, using a slang term for the conservative, clean-cut dress style associated with elite preparatory schools. Flores said he prefers a decidedly baggy brand that falls around his hips.


"Levi's are too straight, too plain," said Irma Cruz, 16. "None of my friends wear them."


Preppy? Too plain? Is it possible that the jeans first worn by California gold miners and made popular in the 1950s by James Dean and Marlon Brando are now too conservative?


With its share of the U.S. men's jeans market dropping from 48 percent in 1990 to an estimated 26 percent now, Levi Strauss and Co. is cutting back. It announced recently that it will close 11 plants in four U.S. states, putting nearly 6,400 out of work -- 34 percent of its manufacturing work force in the United States and Canada.


Levi's says the layoffs are limited to the United States, since the company is growing abroad. The company employs 13,500 workers outside of North America, including operations in Hungary, Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa and the Czech Republic.


Spokesman Clarence Grebey said the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid and other political changes have opened new markets for the jeans, which in many countries represent American youth.


"Internationally, the Levi's brand is extremely strong, and it is coveted by young people around the world. It's an icon, a fashion item that represents an original American product -- what it means to be sexy, youthful and rebellious," Grebey said.


In the United States, however, that image is in jeopardy. Levi's is getting knocked around by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and even discount retailers.


High-end designers own an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent of the U.S. men's market, according to Tactical Retail Monitor, a clothing-industry newsletter. Moreover, cheaper in-house brands sold by the large retail chains have grabbed up to 19 percent of the men's market and 30 percent of the women's, compared with 3 percent each in 1990.